Judge Joe Armenio has officially given up trying to define film noir.
"Livin' in my house! Lovin' another man! Is that what you call bein' honest? That's just givin' it a nice name!"
Clash by Night was directed by Fritz Lang in 1952, from a screenplay by Alfred Hayes that was adapted from a play by Clifford Odets. Warner has released it as part of its second film noir box set; the term has been used so expansively—sometimes it seems that any film from classic Hollywood with a gloomy atmosphere has been branded a noir—that it hardly seems useful anymore. For what it's worth, Peter Bogdanovich says in his commentary that he doesn't consider this film noir because there isn't any crime in it. It's kind of a banal definition, but one that seems to jibe well with the popular perception of noir as a genre involving private dicks and femme fatales. Clash by Night could be better described as a sort of fervent proletarian drama of ideas, filtered through Lang's fatalistic sensibility. It's not a very successful film, despite Lang's characteristically assured and expressive direction; the clash between Odets' and Lang's preoccupations is never resolved in a coherent way, and the film's gender politics are problematic to say the least.
Facts of the Case
The film is set among the fisherfolk of Monterey, California: Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas, The Maggie), is a decent, salt-of-the-earth type who lives with his alcoholic father (Silvio Minciotti) and manipulative Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish). Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) is a local girl who escaped to the big city but has returned home after an unhappy romance with a politician. She finds Jerry a bit dull but, lonely and desperate for security, she agrees to marry him. Their marriage is challenged by Jerry's worldly, cynical friend Earl (Robert Ryan, The Naked Spur), who insists that he and Mae are in fact meant for each other. A subplot involves the relationship between Mae's macho brother Joe (Keith Andes) and his girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Clash by Night begins with a long, virtually dialogue-free documentary sequence showing the activities of Jerry's fishing boat. Much of the film was made on location in northern California, a rarity for a Hollywood film of the period (although by 1952 Italian neorealism had begun to influence some Hollywood filmmakers, resulting in a brief vogue for location shooting). It's rare for a Hollywood film to avoid plot and character for quite this long, and it's a beautiful, atmospheric sequence, riveting in a way that the rest of the film is not.
With its emphasis on the wildness of nature (there are plenty of shots throughout the film of turbulent, crashing waves), this sequence also illustrates some of the differences between Lang's worldview and that of the screenplay. Odets and Hayes tend to see "nature" as orderly and peaceful; Jerry, who is touch with the natural world, is both happier and more moral than his friend Earl, who works as a film projectionist and hence deals with the illusory and unnatural. Odets was always concerned with the transition from traditional societies, in which people existed in a sort of organic accord with their environments, to modern, capitalist ones, in which people were rootless, lacking in interesting work, flailing wildly about in the search for fulfillment. In one sequence, Jerry's father, who has been reduced to a drunken, sentimental wreck by the decline of the world of his youth, chides Earl for his laziness, saying, "I like work." "I don't like work," Earl snarls back, establishing himself as the unsatisfied modern drifter, degraded by the failure of the world to find a place for him.
Lang doesn't seem particularly interested in these themes; he's more concerned with the tempestuous nature of the love triangle, the way it reveals romance as combat. "Nature" for him is turbulent rather than peaceful, chaotic rather than orderly. There's quite a disconnect between the screenplay's suggestion that a connection to nature gives Jerry an admirable simplicity and Lang's images of wildness, both human and natural; Lang is most interested in the ways in which the fundamental violence of the world eludes our pathetic attempts to tame it.
The movie's gender politics are (unfortunately, as it turns out) more coherent. Mae is driven to Jerry out of a need for stability, a desire to be taken care of, to give herself up to domesticity. Earl almost convinces her to continue struggling for independence but, in the end, she realizes that a woman's "natural" duty is to give herself up to her man, that happiness lies in submission. These themes are played out even more explicitly in the subplot involving Keith Andes' and Marilyn Monroe's characters; Joe is an almost comic caricature of wooden machismo, and Peggy is briefly willful before submitting to his commanding manliness, expressing her surprise that she likes a man who pushes her around. Yikes.
This emotional story requires quite a bit of technique from the cast, among which Douglas is the weak link. He does his best, although miscast; he's too much of a sophisticate to be convincing as a humble Italian fisherman. Stanwyck is typically excellent, suggesting the many levels of Mae's ambivalence. Watch the scene just before she's seduced by Earl, when she breaks down in the kitchen; she continues to pour coffee even as she cries, attempting until the very last moment to maintain her facade of domestic competence. Ryan is fine as well, richly evoking Earl's malice as well as his loneliness. Monroe fans will, of course, be interested in this film for her presence. It was one of her first straight dramatic roles, and she acquits herself respectably, although Bogdanovich says in his commentary that Lang was endlessly frustrated with her for flubbing her lines and ruining his characteristic long takes; there's one scene early on in which her lines have obviously been dubbed in later.
The full-frame transfer preserves the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film is in decent shape; there are some print defects, but nothing terribly distracting. The mono sound, as well, is serviceable. The only extra of note is Bogdanovich's commentary, which is best at conveying gossip such as the story about Lang's frustration with Monroe related above. It's clear that he hasn't prepared very much; at one point early on he admits that he doesn't remember how the movie ends, and he seems unfamiliar with the Odets play on which it is based. He talks a lot and rather blandly about the enduring nature of the "love triangle" plot, avoiding any of the film's larger themes. He's good at pointing out how particular shots illustrate Lang's technique, but he runs out of things to say after a while, repeating his solid but unremarkable assertion that Lang's visual expressiveness had its origins in his experience as a silent filmmaker. As in his commentary on Lang's Fury, Bogdanovich occasionally plays audio clips from his 1965 interviews with the director. There's less of this material here than there is in Fury, perhaps five minutes' worth.
Clash by Night is a minor Fritz Lang film; neither the love triangle plot nor the screenplay's antimodernist politics seem to engage him very much. It's kind of a mess, but with talents like Lang, Odets, Stanwyck, and Ryan involved, it's at least an interesting mess.
Guilty of an attitude toward relationships that would seem silly if it wasn't kind of repugnant.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, with Audio Clips from Director Fritz Lang
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